Directed by Matthew Dunster and written by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), Hangmen at the Royal Court Theatre brings a new meaning to the term ‘swinging sixties’. A witty, dark, contemporary drama that descends steadily into savagery and hilarity. David Morissey, of Walking Dead fame, shines in his role as number two Hangman in all of England. Harry (Morissey) must come to terms with more modern times as abolition takes effect.
The play opens in 1963 on Harry’s tense final hanging, in a dank prison cell with exceptional set design by Anna Fleischle; James Hennessy (Josef Davies) fights, cries and proclaims his innocence to his last breath. Whist this is a comedy, and a very funny one at that, the opening scene effectively sets the dark tone for the rest of the story. We transition to two years later and Bill is still living in the shadow of famed hangman Albert Pierrepoint (John Hodgkinson). Bill, as Albert did, opens a pub post-abolition with his wife (Sally Rogers) and daughter (Bronwyn Jones), where he titillates his bored, alcoholic customers every day with tales of the job, whilst adamant he is a man ‘that keeps his own council’. All is well until Harry is convinced to do an interview on hanging in the paper and a mysterious, menacing southerner shows up.
Themes of revenge, justice, masculinity and the North/South divide are at the forefront as past mistakes come back to haunt Harry and his family, all whilst the futility of capital punishment as a deterrent is on show. Of all the plays I’ve seen (which could be counted on one hand), Hangmen is the funniest and had me crying with laughter as it’s absurdity culminated with perfect comedic timing in it’s tragic final scene.
The show flies by even with a near three hour run time. Hurried along by Mcdonagh’s witty dialogue which is delivered excellently. All performances are spot on, with the only criticism being Johnny Flynn’s portrayal as the villainous Mooney perhaps being over the top; whilst in theatre it may be necessary to be more demonstrative, Flynn’s constant lip licking and his line delivery borders on cliché.
Overall Hangmen is superb and I would recommend it to both layman like myself and frequent theatregoers too. Exceptionally funny and soaked in enough subtext and symbolism to entertain audiences at either end of the spectrum.